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Keywords:

  • Biome sensitivity;
  • climate;
  • fire regimes;
  • global change;
  • human impacts;
  • tipping points

Abstract

Aim

The increased incidence of large fires around much of the world in recent decades raises questions about human and non-human drivers of fire and the likelihood of increased fire activity in the future. The purpose of this paper is to outline a conceptual framework for examining where human-set fires and feedbacks are likely to be most pronounced in temperate forests world-wide and to establish and test a methodology for evaluating this framework using palaeoecological records.

Location

Tasmania, north-western USA, southern South America and New Zealand.

Methods

We outline a conceptual framework for predicting the sensitivity of ecosystems to human impacts on fire regimes and then use a circum-Pacific comparison of existing historical reconstructions of fire, climate, human settlement and vegetation to evaluate this approach.

Results

Previous research investigating important controls on fire activity shows that the sensitivity of temperate ecosystems to human-set fires is modulated by the frequency of natural fire occurrence, fuel moisture and fuel type and availability. Palaeoecological data from four temperate regions suggest that the effects of anthropogenic burning are greatest where fire is naturally rare, vegetation is poorly adapted to fire and fuel biomass is abundant and contiguous. Alternatively, where fire activity is naturally high and vegetation is well adapted to fire, evidence of human influence on fire and vegetation is less obvious.

Main conclusions

Palaeofire records suggest that the most dynamic and persistent ecosystem transitions occur where human activities increase landscape flammability through fire–vegetation feedbacks. Rapid forest transitions in biomass-rich ecosystems such as New Zealand and areas of Tasmania and southern South America illustrate how landscapes experiencing few fires can shift past tipping points to become fire-prone landscapes with new alternative stable state communities. Comparisons of palaeoecological data from different regions with similar biophysical gradients but different human settlement histories can provide new opportunities for understanding ecosystem vulnerability to fire–climate–human interactions.